"The Idea of Perfection" by Kate Grenville

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In The Idea of Perfection we experience very closely the inner dialogues of three major players who proceed with varying degrees of self-consciousness. Two of them are painfully self-aware; they concern themselves deeply with how others view them, and assume the worst. The third navigates her life as though she’s a spectator in it: she nearly dissociates herself from her less desirable acts, while trying, perhaps subconsciously, to atone for them in her more-aware moments. This brilliant book won the 2000 Orange Prize for fiction and completely deserves it.

Two lives converge in the bush country of New South Wales as the book begins. Two strangers arrive independently in Karakarook from Sydney, one a government engineer who will manage the destruction and replacement of an out-of-date bridge, and the other a specialist in heritage and culture who will assist in establishing a museum. He, the gawky engineer with the jug-handle ears and a crippling lack of confidence, and she, the tall, heavyset, and irascible curator, encounter each other. They do not hit if off immediately, to say the least, and the unlikely first date (a delightfully comic stretch of writing) doesn’t help.

But Ms. Grenville, one of my favorites since I encountered The Secret River, has set up the lovely, elegant narrative construct of the crumbling bridge. This simple, past-its-prime span, built from timber and intended to last, has
suffered from the effects of a flood some years ago. Certain townsfolk protest the decision to replace it, citing it as one of the chief historical attractions of the backwater town.

All these facts serve the author’s conceit of building bridges, of spanning obstacles, between people. However effectively this framework is established, though, its resolution rises solely from human action - thought, reflection, intention, and deed. And herein lies Ms. Grenville’s greatest feat. The principals themselves must come to terms with their habitual isolation, and decide whether the opportunity before them  offers sufficient potential for them to change. There are many touches here - too many to mention - that certify the author’s great skill and award-winning vision. Cover to cover this is a great, a masterful performance.

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